The subject of diet in Traditional Chinese Medicine is vast. It is considered the sign of a superior medical practitioner if the patient’s ills can be mended by adjustments to their diet, without resorting to actual medicine or acupuncture, as a less skilled practitioner must do.
For myself, I am not as skilled as all that in giving individually tailored dietary advice in the clinic, but diet is a subject that comes up often in the clinic. And I am coming to believe that the standard “healthy eating” advice currently dispensed both in magazine supplements and doctor’s offices may be contributing as much to people’s ill-health as the plethora of junk foods tempting us from every aisle in the supermarket.
The following would be a fair representation of the typical menu followed by dozens of people I’ve met in my clinic, who believe (& according to conventional wisdom, ARE) eating a “healthy” diet:
Breakfast: porridge, fruit, low fat yoghurt (Or some other variation on a cereal theme – toast, breakfast cereal, etc)
Teabreak: fruit or biscuit, skim milk in tea
Lunch: sandwich & a salad
Coffee break: banana or nuts, skim milk in coffee
Dinner: lean chicken or fish with vegetables, possibly stir fried in vegetable oil, with pasta or rice.
Snack before bed: a banana or other fruit, a sandwich or some wholemeal toast, or some low fat yoghurt
This person largely avoids known junk food such as biscuits, sweets, crisps, chocolate, deserts, & fizzy drinks. When faced with a choice, this person will opt for lower levels of fat, for margerine before butter, for mayonnaise before cream.
What could be wrong with that, right?
And yet, this person can present in the clinic with fatigue, mood swings, hunger cravings (despite eating six or seven times a day), bloating, sometimes bowel irregularities, extra weight, especially around the middle, that they can’t shift, etc.
When someone tells me the story of their diet – and in many cases, it runs very like the one above – my first question is going to be, “where is the actual food?” This gets me puzzled looks, and then I explain the following:
1) There is too little fat here – especially animal fat. Fat is the preferred fuel for our cells – when at rest, healthy cells burn 90% fat and 10% glucose. Yet many people today believe, and are told by experts, that animal fats clog arteries and cause heart disease. Health conscious people then opt for the lower fat dairy products, lean meats, butter substitutes, etc. The idea that saturated fats are dangerous exploded into public consciousness in the 1970’s, when a nutrition panel of experts was convened by the US government. The panel was by no means united in this idea, nevertheless the “fat is bad” faction won the political vote on the day, and that became the basis for decades of government-sponsored “sensible eating advice.” Despite the evidence that following this advice is making people both fatter and sicker, and despite mounting evidence that saturated fat in the diet has no adverse effects, and is, indeed, beneficial both for metabolism and essential body functions, the “fat is bad” hypothesis lumbers on.
Consider two things that make this hypothesis difficult to believe. First, humans have been eating meat for over a million years, possibly much longer. And throughout most of that time, humans have preferred the fattier bits. Archaeological evidence shows repeatedly that when hunts were plentiful, humans threw away whole carcasses after removing the harder to access and fattier brains & bone marrow, together with the nutrient rich organs, such as the livers & kidneys. The lean meat we are so fond of nowadays was, for most hunters, simply the leftovers. Mainly good for feeding to the dogs, unless game was really scarce. Secondly, we store fat in our own bodies in a saturated animal fat form – practically indistinguishable from the fat on a steak. So, lets say we fast for a prolonged period, or go on a super-low calorie diet. What do you think we will be living on then? Why, lots and lots of the saturated animal fat that we had ourselves stored away just for that purpose!
2) The ratio of polyunsaturates to saturates within what little fat most people will choose eat nowadays, is too high. There are essential polyunsaturated fats (Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids) that we cannot make in our bodies, but the quantities we need, like other essential nutrients, are actually quite small. In addition to the oily fish, the grass-fed meat, butter & cream we have in Ireland will supply more than enough of these fats for all our needs, and in the right proportions. Yet people in modern societies are now consuming unheard of quantities of seed oils, high in polyunsaturates, and very unbalanced in their proportion of Omega-6 to Omega-3, largely because successful marketing has labelled them the “healthy” fats.
Physiologically, in the absence of saturated fats, the body will be forced to incorporate the less stable polyunsaturates into fatty tissues, such as cell membranes and brain cells, where the structures they support cannot achieve the optimum shape for their tasks. Fats are used in the construction of many important immune and signalling molecules within the body as well. The wrong building blocks can make the difference between a pro-inflammatory and an anti-inflammatory molecule. In particular, high levels of omega-6 fats appears to be extremely pro-inflammatory, contributing both to obesity and to many other disease conditions.
3) The cereal (esp wheat) content is too high. Humans began eating cereals – the seeds of annual grasses, around 10,000 years ago, at most. (Many of us have ancestors who were introduced to cereals much more recently than that). In every case where cereals & farming came into the human diet, archaeological evidence from the “before” and “after” line shows that this change was was, in every case, a detrimental one. Skeletons unearthed prior to the adoption of a cereal-based farming lifestyle are taller, more robust, have bigger braincases, show less evidence of disease and tooth decay, and record fewer incidences of prolonged periods of hunger. Why humans chose to adopt this inferior diet and lifestyle is still hotly debated among archaeologists, although perhaps the usefulness of grains for making beer as well as bread may hold a clue.
Seeds are difficult to digest. In fact, seed producers (plants) would prefer we not digest their seeds at all, they’d rather we eat them, & then leave them behind, still whole, in a nice pile of fertiliser. In order to gain any nutrition from a seed, we must process it very highly. Grinding, milling, de-husking, fermenting, soaking, cooking, baking – these are all processes used by humans to release nutrition from seeds. Nevertheless, grain foods still retain quite a few “anti-nutrients.” Phytates, for example, are a handy source of phosphorus for a growing plant, but cannot be broken down by non-ruminant animals. These can attach to minerals in our guts and actually remove them before we have a change to absorb them. This can be dangerous in people suffering from mineral deficiencies. Seed foods are also high in lectins, which can bind the intestinal wall, causing leaky gut syndrome, and elevating the risk of an autoimmune response. Of all the grain foods, wheat is the most destructive in this way.
4) (partly as a consequence of 3) This diet is high in sugar. All the grain foods, as well as many starchy vegetables, will convert during the digestion process into simpler sugars, as well as very small amounts of protein and fat. We are able to consume & metabolise starchy foods within certain thresholds, but our new found fervour to cut all fat out of our diet has led people to consume unprecedented amounts & proportions of these starchy foods (also known as carbohydrates or carbs). Most people understand that too much sugar can lead to metabolic disregulation, however, this problem can also arise from eating too many of the “heart-healthy” grains, since they convert quite readily to sugar.
Essentially, as outlined above, our cells at rest consume around 90% fat and 10% glucose. When we exercise, the glucose portion might rise to 30 or 40%, but rarely higher. This means we our cells in their natural state will have a preference for taking fatty acid fuels from the blood rather than glucose. However the blood itself can become toxic when it is carrying too much glucose, so insulin is released to change the cell’s normal preference, forcing it to take up sugar from the blood instead of fatty acids. This keeps the blood sugar stable, but if we eat too much dietary sugar and starch, our cells end up being force fed sugar on such a regular basis that sooner or later they will protest and shout “stop!” at which point we have developed insulin resistance, or type 2 Diabetes. By the time this happens, the metabolic functions of the cells may already have been damaged.
Ok, so if a conventionally “healthy” diet is too low in animal fat, too high in seed oil fat, cereals and sugar, to be truly healthy, how should we feed a healthy body?
1. Don’t be afraid of the animal foods or of their fat content. Eat as you will of fish, meat, eggs, butter, cream, full fat dairy, preferably at every meal. (Obviously if you have a known allergy to one or more of these foods, choose accordingly). Vegetarians who consume full fat dairy and/or eggs will benefit enormously from the inclusion of these important animal-derived foods. All foods in this category are nutrient-rich and naturally satiating, so there is no need to count calories. You will feel like stopping when you get full, unlike many sugary or starchy foods, and certainly unlike many of the laboratory-designed junk foods that can bring on an interminable binge.
2. Avoid seed oils, including all margerines, vegetable oils, mayonnaise, chippers that no longer use lard, etc.
3. Avoid grain and cereal foods or use sparingly, and never on their own. Make sure, when you do eat them, you include some of the fattier, animal foods, even if it is only a largish knob of butter on your porridge. On a spectrum, wheat is probably the most destructive of the cereal foods, and rice is the safest. With everything else, including porridge, somewhere between those two extremes.
4. Minimise the starchy & sugary content of your food – potatoes and rice are the safest of the starchy foods, and these should be eaten as part of a meal containing some animal foods and other vegetables. Use buter, cream, & sour cream plentifully.
Try to shop for the bulk of your food at the butcher and greengrocer & the dairy section of the supermarket. Avoid almost everything with a label. If it needs a label to tell you what’s in it, especially if that label contains more than two or three ingredients, it’s probably best to leave it back on the shelf.
Don’t weigh, don’t measure, don’t set limits to what you will eat. Choosing your foods well is really the only “trick” described here. Once you start choosing your foods from among those that supply densely packed nutrients your body can easily use – meat, fish, eggs, full fat dairy, vegetables, potatoes, rice, fruit – it will not be long before you find you are feeling full and well-nourished for longer periods of the day. As your body re-adjusts to a more plentiful supply of the right kind of nutrients, your weight and symptoms will also improve at an even pace. Such changes will let you know that you are on the right track, without stressing yourself unduly.
Eat well & be well.